The role of an MP

Parliament Committee SystemAs a Malaysian, one would hope that Parliament would adequately represent the will of the people and strive to improve the policy-making process. Looking at the state of our Parliament today, such hopes are bound to be dashed.

The 2013 Parliamentary session ended on 5 December, it will be resumed in March 2014. Parliament sits three times a year, typically in March, June and September (during which the Budget is presented). The average length of a yearly Parliamentary session is 70 days. However, the number seems to fluctuate from year to year.

In 2010, Parliament sat for 80 days in order to finish debating the 10th Malaysia Plan. This year’s parliamentary sitting lasted only 50 days, all of which took place after the general election in 5 May.

In Britain and Australia, parliament sits for 150 days a year, whereas many other countries have all-year-round parliamentary sessions save for the summer and winter holidays.

Doesn’t Parliament care about Kuantan’s floods?

On the morning of 4th December 2013, the Member of Parliament for Kuantan, Fuziah Salleh filed an emergency motion regarding the flood situation in Kuantan. Although the notice was filed without 24 hour notice, the Yang Dipertua Dewan Rakyat, Pandikar Amin was gracious to allow it to be read in chambers. Most of the time, emergency motions by members of the opposition are rejected without being read.

This riled up the MP from Kinabatangan, Bung Moktar Radin. He interjected Fuziah several times, insisting that Fuziah should be with her flood-hit constituents instead of being in the chamber, insinuating that it was a shameful thing that she should be in Parliament while the floods were taking place.

Meanwhile, Pandikar Amin responded to a question on why Malaysia’s parliamentary system does not practice the committee system. According to Pandikar, Malaysia’s situation is different from other countries, because our voters demand for their elected representatives to be close at hand. This is part of the reason why it is difficult to extend the length of parliamentary sittings.

Voters demand “omnipresent” MPs

Both these statements from Bung Mokhtar and Pandikar have a common thread – they iterate the view that the job of a Member of Parliament is to be physically present in the constituency. The prevailing school of thought negates the fact that MPs have to be present when Parliament is in session, or when laws are being debated – these issues seem to have conveniently left out.

Therein lies the problem. Voters want to see and meet their Parliamentarians. In order to successfully win a seat, prospective candidates must fulfil this expectation, and the pressure to do so does not cease once one is elected. MPs are compelled to perform duties which are supposed to be carried out by State Assemblymen or Local Councillors, so long as they get to meet and greet the voters.

Such a political climate created by the ruling party and the bureaucracy does not encourage MPs to focus on their actual work of policy-making. To the bureaucrats and ruling party, Parliament is merely a “rubber stamp” to legitimise their decisions.

Think of it this way. Imagine a system where Parliament sessions are broadcast live and parliamentary committees formed. Imagine if parliamentary committee hearings are given media coverage. Pretend that parliamentary debates and consultation between the government and the opposition hold actual influence over policy-making. This would give pressure for inefficient officials to be fired, and prevent hanky panky in government overspending. The voter would be able to “see” their MP performing their job as reported in the media or telecast on television. If all these conditions existed, would voters have different expectations of their MPs?

Case in point: Fuziah’s motion mentioned earlier. If Parliament had approved the emergency motion to debate the flood situation, then the minister in charge would be made accountable and have to face the entire nation. If the Kuantan floods are treated as a national disaster and assisted accordingly, then the cumulative effect would be larger, surely, than if the lone Kuantan MP went back to Kuantan to “be with the people”.

How parliamentary committees function

Why are parliamentary committees important? It’s an undisputed global fact that parliamentary debates more or less contain elements of a “performance”. Prior to the formation of legislative bodies, warfare was the primary method of resolving political issues. The existence of parliament enables various leaders with differing interests to “battle it out” verbally, so to speak. Each has an opportunity to state their position clearly, and conflict is resolved without force.

But a battle of words in parliament will not be able to settle complex national affairs as well as operate the massive government machinery. The purpose of Parliamentary committees are to enable MPs from both sides of the divide to be involved in the business of making laws and forming policies. It also monitors and oversees the operation of the government’s administrative and financial system.

This is my second term as an MP, and my sixth year participating in the parliamentary debate on the budget. This year, the Finance Minister presented the budget on 25 October. The budget debate was conducted from 28 October until 7 November, lasting a total of six sitting days. The “policy stage” debate where Ministerial replies are given to questions raised by MPs regarding broad policy direction and related topics was held from 11 November til 13 November (three sitting days).

From 14 November until 3 December (11 sitting days), the actual “committee stage” debate on the budget took place. For the past few years, this stage of debate typically occupied up to 18 sitting days. This year’s shrinking committee stage debate period necessitated the Parliament sittings to be stretched until 10.30pm at night virtually everyday.

Many friends asked me, doesn’t Parliament already have its committees, and aren’t you already having “committee stage” debates? What we have is called “committee of the house”. In our version of committee stage debate, the only difference is that the ceremonial mace is not presented and the House Speaker temporarily assumes the post of “Committee Chairman”.

Other than that, the so-called “committee stage” debate is pretty much business as usual. Budgetary matters involved tens of billions are often passed by parliament after having been debated by the opposition members for 10 minutes. After the ministerial reply is given, the matter is considered closed.

Consider if the committee stage debate were to be conducted properly by dividing the 24 ministries we have into 12 parliamentary committees. Assume that these committees are comprised of MPs from the opposition and the ruling government. With this, the debate and policy-making process, not to mention the element of check and balance, can be conducted in a more thorough manner.

A good parliamentary committee system can groom government backbenchers to become future ministers, and opposition MPs will be trained to be more focused on particular ministries as future preparation. Higher quality debates at the committee stage will also build up bipartisan working relationship between the government and opposition.

In June, when Pandikar Amin was reappointed the Speaker, he promised parliamentary reforms. 2013 is drawing to a close, I am afraid these reforms have yet to materialise. We can only hope for next year to be better.

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